Monthly Archives: March 2018

Unsane — 7/10

UNSANE (2017, Steven Soderbergh)

Very early on in this air-tight psycho thriller, the female protagonist Sawyer enters the office of her boss at a new job. The establishing shot is of the photos on his desk — a wife, a family. Then the older, more powerful man sits her down and proceeds to brazenly hit on her, inviting her to a convention in New Orleans with just him, for two nights (“At the Hyatt!”) before she excuses herself. This scene comes after we’ve already heard her on the phone ordering a client around with an assertive tone — her co-worker thinks it’s a man she’s talking to, but Sawyer quickly points out it’s a “she.”

Gender dynamics continue to play a role throughout UNSANE, Soderbergh’s fourth success in a row, during what’s turning out to be a fruitful, compelling late period (following his masterful TV show THE KNICK, last year’s crackerjack LOGAN LUCKY, and the recent HBO miniseries — and techno-forward app experiment — MOSAIC). In fact, gender is virtually what it’s all about. Sawyer even gets her name from her grandfather. Throughout her life, which we learn a lot about in swift exposition, despite the entire movie taking place in less than a week, dominant men have exerted force over her, and the gaslighting is just beginning.

Not that female nurses and administrators don’t play a part too, and not that she doesn’t have male allies (Jay Pharoah is a standout), but the pattern is men closing in on Sawyer. Watch how deftly a surprising Matt Damon plays his detective character — in just a minute or two of screen time he rushes through his lines with so much fear-mongering and mansplaining that you wonder if he’s as dangerous as the stalker she’s complaining about.

Credit to Bernstein and Greer’s screenplay for tightly setting everything up on the quick. When Sawyer calls her mom at the beginning, she sings praises about her boss despite having just endured the gross come-on. That clues us in to why mom isn’t aware of David, and how much Sawyer is really keeping to herself. And this wouldn’t be a Soderbergh film if it didn’t come down to the corruption of American economics — in this case, health care, and how hospitals run insurance scams just to stay afloat. All of this is packed into an unsettling, disturbing, 98-minute pot-boiler shot on an iPhone 7 with ingenious compositions, editing, and movement. Even the shaky American accent Claire Foy struggles through doesn’t distract from a powerhouse lead performance, and while the plot resolves itself without any real unpredictability beyond the first hour, Soderbergh proves once again how comforting it is to give in to someone who knows what the hell he’s doing. By the time the suspense climaxes with a showdown in a disorienting blue padded cell, the maestro has shown that there are no constraints he can’t work within.

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Isle of Dogs — 7/10

ISLE OF DOGS (2018, Wes Anderson)

Unmistakably Anderson in every frame, a two-dimensional talking mobile from the juvenile mind of Max Fischer, the camera panning straight left and right, 90 degrees up and down, center-punched compositions, details overflowing. It doesn’t even move so much as it fizzes like a glass of Sprite, where you have to count every carbonated bubble before it pops into the air.

With anthropomorphized dogs getting most of the dialogue and characterizations, the film threatens to lose any grip on humanity, but with its imperialist villains who use their power to exile and poison those less fortunate (dogs=immigrants), some decent analogies can be made to tie this back to a real-world examination of moral decay. But Anderson doesn’t want to dwell on that regardless — this is an opportunity to play in a colorful sandbox fantasia of a movie, where he wants nary a note of music, word of narration, or second of reaction timing to be out of place.

And just when you think he’s leaning too far into hermetically sealed and mathematically perfect, there’s a warmth to the boy-and-his-dog relationship. Cranston’s voice performance is terrific here; he arcs his Chief to begin as gruff and heartless, monotonous and mean — then he gradually shifts to dynamic volumes, different pitches, and pauses that reveal the emotions underneath. It’s a full fledged three-dimensional character doomed to be underrated because Cranston’s face isn’t on screen. McDormand is also pretty great as the English translator of the Japanese news, using that “I’m reading this and trying to be impartial” voice, hurrying but not rushing. The same goes for Courtney B. Vance’s actual narrator, like he’s telling a serious bedtime story to his son. And it’s through these narrative voices (not the Japanese characters, who don’t get subtitles) we get to hear Anderson’s delightful lines like “It’s a distant uncle’s worst nightmare!”

I’m not sure it all ever congeals, though, to something deeper than its surface pleasures, which are plentiful. Anderson’s “flighty period” is his entire career, and occasionally you yearn for either some heavier boots anchoring his feet to the soil, or a little more muscle to the punches. His lightest films (though this one has plenty of dark layers — the entire premise is dystopian and there’s real danger for a lot of characters) like THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX and THE DARJEELING LIMITED almost lift off like a hot-air balloon, and they disappear into the sky by the time you leave the theater. I admire everything about how this guy crafts a movie in every single stage of production, but I think he’s capable of a 4-movement symphony one of these days, not another expertly produced twee pop song.

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